2015-04-20 03:46

Xenophobia is largely an existential and not a material problem. By existential, I simply mean the problem of how one should choose to live. The xenophobe has no clue how to take personal responsibility for his freedom. There is a common attitude shared by xenophobes: They are rebels against personal freedom. Thus, I think it will be misplaced to suggest that the nature of this problem can be uncovered by an analysis which assumes that the xenophobe’s nature depends entirely on his material conditions. I also think it will be naive to believe that if the xenophobe fulfils his material needs, that we will somehow all progress towards a utopian society. I draw on the concepts of two great intellectuals of the past, Freud and Satre, to describe the nature of the xenophobe.

Consider a Freudian perspective. Freud would argue that the group leader plays a fundamental role in shaping the xenophobe’s attitude to the foreigner. The xenophobe you see is a horde not so much a herd creature, and as such he surrenders his will to the dictates of his leader. The xenophobe has a primal need. Even though an illusion, he needs to believe in the equal and just love of the leader. Easily swayed, this false love also binds him to members of his group. What follows is an uneasy, mixed relationship of individually repressed love and hate for both the leader and members.

The leader of the xenophobe meanwhile is an independent and compulsive narcissist. He loves no one but himself. Yet he has the power to direct his members through suggestion and misdirection. His primary task is to maintain group legitimacy and harmony. He is able to manipulate how members go about coping with this task. Afraid of their growing intolerance and hostility towards him, he calls for them to displace their aggression onto ‘Others’. These ‘Others’ are labelled as the ‘common threat’ and serve as easy targets for intolerance and hostility. This he hopes will strengthen the groups’ bonds. Easily duped, members pay collective homage to their hero by acting in unison against the foreigner. The result is the unleashing of the most irrational emotion – an act of pure evil.

Following Satre’s perspective, the xenophobe cannot shirk the responsibility of his freedom. Ultimately he is personally responsible for the choices he makes in spite of his social conditions, in spite of the authorities that impose on him, and in spite of the social norms that his group members wish to impose on him. Being a xenophobe is therefore a personal choice, altogether passionate and totally irrational, directed also by a ‘deluded conception’ of the mythical group essence. He personally creates the Other, defines the Other, and in the process defines himself by the Other.

Like the racist the xenophobe claims his worth by the accident of birth, language, and history. Helpless on his own, he sustains his deluded self and romantic notions of his traditional culture, by attributing all or part of his own misfortunes and those of his tribe to the presence of foreign elements in the community – even though, some of it may be directly attributed to his personal laziness or incompetence. He treats the foreigner as the enemy, because the foreigner understands the mysteries of modern notions like taking responsibility, planning, organizing and sacrificing.

He interprets the greed of his leader to be qualitatively better than the enterprising nature of the foreigner. He detests the foreigner. He cannot stand them physically. The sight of them irritates him. The foreigner is like an ugly truth mirror. Witnessing their success is annoying. Welfare bound he despises their life of individual responsibility and reason that buys them his undeserved passions: wealth, women, property, status and admiration. He offers no virtue to the fruits of labour that the foreigner bears, only stigma. Better it is to see the foreign shop owner as weak as opposed to acknowledging his own insignificance. A coward, he hides his fascistic personality and is seemingly normal and vulnerable when alone. Shielded by the collective, he loses his intellect and employs violence and plunder without a hint of a conscience. Perhaps, it is because his sadistic leanings have no chance against the police or army, that the xenophobe does not react against the real object of his aggression – his leaders and fellow members.

The government generally out of its depth in all matters concerning nation building meanwhile pretends that the problem of xenophobia does not exist. The xenophobe they claim is at the heart of the matter, a criminal. Yes, but his criminality has a special character. It is directed at foreign ‘Others’. And while many "moderate" South Africans may complacently say: "Personally, I do not hate these foreigners”, the time to stop fence sitting and taking sides has arrived. Not a single South African will be secure so long as a single foreigner fears for his life in this country. Race, ethnicity and class today, tomorrow who knows what ‘foreign’ differences the xenophobe will conjure up as a target for his aggression?

The best possibility for lasting peace is to find innovative ways that channel the aggression of the xenophobe towards constructive paths. Just as the weakening of religion and the diminishing threat of communism contributed to tolerance among the different groups, there is a need to weaken the xenophobe’s pathological attachments. Perhaps, it is time we considered the disbanding of the xenophobe’s kings, princes and other troublemaking traditional leaders. Perhaps those who inherited their power no longer have a place in a modern democracy. Is it too much to ask that only men of talent and ability lead this nation?

Reflecting on South Africa’s history, imagining the demise of the xenophobe appears improbable. He would need to accept the powers of his own individuality, reign in his passion and blend it with reason, and engage in meaningful projects that contribute positively to society. Would you bet on this?

So much for Ubuntu ungamntu ngabanye abantu ("People are people through other people"). The xenophobe’s primitive cries can be heard, “People are only people if they are my king’s people”.


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2010-11-21 18:15

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